Major Leagues mine rich history in Australian opener

Thu Mar 20, 2014 6:16am EDT
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By Matt Siegel

SYDNEY (Reuters) - While your average Australian may be surprised to hear that the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers are kicking off the 2014 Major League Baseball season in Sydney, history shows that they really should be anything but.

Although Australia is sports mad - cricket is the closest thing it has to a national religion - baseball these days exists almost exclusively as source material for teasing any visiting American foolish enough to mention sports in a pub.

But America's national pastime has actually been bringing together impressive crowds Down Under for more than 150 years, and not just of foreigners.

"A correspondent requests us to call attention to the practice of a number of boys and young men who congregate in Mr. Wilkinson's paddock... on Sunday afternoons, for playing at cricket, base-ball, making a great noise, and offending the eyes and ears of persons of moral and religious feeling," Hobart's Colonial Times newspaper wrote on September 22, 1855.

The storied Sydney Cricket Ground, where the D-Backs and Dodgers will launch their seasons with back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday, is itself home to more than 100 years of baseball lore.

It was on those hallowed grounds that sporting goods tycoon Arthur Spalding kicked off his barnstorming 1888 Australian Tour with a game between his Chicago White Stockings and the All America's, an All-Star team slapped together for the tour.

The troupe was met triumphantly in Sydney Harbour by a flotilla swaddled in red, white and blue. More than 5,000 spectators turned to watch the ballclubs play in Sydney, which was a pretty good turnout by 19th century standards.

Many baseball historians believe that the sport evolved from one of two British antecedents - either cricket or rounders - and Spalding may have picked Australia in the hope that lightning would strike twice, says Rick Burton, the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University.   Continued...

Australia's Canberra Cavalry players celebrate after defeating Taiwan's Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions 14-4 during their Asia Series 2013 baseball game final at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium November 20, 2013. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang